Practical SEO Advice for Beginners
What is SEO, and what can it do for your website? Will it get you to the “top of Google”? Do you need to be the “top of Google”? There is a lot of conflicting information all over the web and in forum posts about what gets you to the first page in Google search results.
First off, SEO does NOT mean “top of Google”. A website without SEO can get good results in Google, while a fully optimised site can be stuck on the bottom of Google’s results. I’ll explain…
A little History of Web Search
The World Wide Web was created for particle physicists to publish the results of their experiments on the internet. But unlike a piece of paper or a simple text file, some of the text could be “hypertext” – magical clickable text that would take you to another web page, somewhere on the internet. Since then, of course, the web has exploded into singing-and-dancing multimedia experiences and web applications, but the world wide web still fulfills the same function it was invented for – publishing information. That information could be your company brochure, your corporate accounts, or your dog’s new puppy photos. It’s still information, and you’re publishing it.
The web quickly became bigger and bigger. To organise it somewhat, people started making web pages that were simply directories of websites. Some of the original web directories are still going, including DMOZ and Yahoo! The first search engines available were in-house ones for searching those directories.
Later came the dedicated Search Engine websites. These are programs that every so often, try out every link on the whole world wide web, and the directories are updated automatically. The first web search engines like Altavista simply counted words. Google, on the other hand, has an near-exact copy of the entire web in it’s databases. Amazing, considering the billions of websites out there…
Why Are Google So Huge?
The creators of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, wanted a search engine that would be relevant to humans. Not merely satisfied with counting words, they included a count of how many links a website had to it from other web pages. At the time, nearly every website had “what’s cool” and “what’s hot” links to their favourite websites. By measuring how many people linked to a website, they could logically guess which websites out there were relevant, or popular, and serve these at the top of their search results.
Ok, a search engine is handy, but those servers and staff aren’t free, so they needed a way to make money off this stuff. So they invented sponsored listings. They made billions. That’s the story of Google. But the point is, they wouldn’t have made those billions if they weren’t a popular search engine – nobody would use them, so nobody would pay them for sponsored ads. On the other hand, they wouldn’t be a popular search engine unless they were were returning results based firmly on what people want.
Unfortunately, a search engine that simply counts words and inbound links can be fooled. It’s possible to create a thousand websites stuffed with words and links to your site. Google’s income is based on producing relevant results, so the people at Google are constantly on the look out for the latest tricks. In some cases, taking those pages out of their results altogether. These tricks are not SEO. If you’re hiring an SEO expert for your company, make sure they don’t engage in that stuff. It might work for a few weeks but then you’re kicked out of Googleland. Don’t bother.
So really, SEO is simply about serving relevant content. Beware of technical “tricks” that will “fool” a search engine into thinking your information is important. Use techniques that will actually make your website important. Optimise your site to the people who will visit your site, and the search engines. I’ll talk about the technical side first. These aren’t SEO tricks that fool a search engine, they are technical design standards that make it easy for search engines to actually find your content.
Optimise for Search Engines
Just make your site to ordinary web standards and it should work.
Optimise for People
Google will always make it’s search engine relevant for humans to find the information they’re looking for. So make your information relevant. All the search engine optimisation in the world won’t make a difference to that.
Say you invent a new recipe for baked beans pie. Imagine now, that you break all the SEO rules – you put it in as an image, with no metatags, “alt” text or anything. Now imagine the world goes nuts for your recipe. People love it. They share your address on Facebook, Reddit, and all over the web. What’s going to happen when people search for “baked beans pie” in Google? It’ll be there. At the top, or near the top. If it isn’t at the top of Google, maybe the feature on the “Famous Pies” website will be at the top. Either way, the relevant information made it.
If your site isn’t at the top of Google, look at who is on top. If your online shop sells instant pie, and you search for “instant pie” in Google, or even “delicious pies”, look at the websites at the top. What makes them more relevant? Chances are they have a larger site, with more information, probably a blog with recipe ideas and latest news from the pie industry. If their website is worse than yours with only a crappy picture and a PayPal order form, and they’re still top of Google, it might be a good idea to actually try one of their pies! Maybe yours need more mustard…
Think about what your customers actually want. Give it to them. And don’t try putting lipstick on a pig. A well designed site, with all the best SEO on it will fail if the actual content or product is rubbish.
Also, there are technical things you can do. Put all your content inside proper HTML tags, use a well written Description metatag (so people can read in their Google results), and if the site is large, a small “breadcrumbs” line can be used. A little row of links that tells you you’re in, for example:-
It just saves all that clicking and searching…
All the Graphic Design rules apply here too. Colours, space, font and layout should all go towards making your information human-optimised, but that’s a whole other subject.
You’ve made yourself a kick-ass site, it’s been optimised for search engines and still no hits. It’s even got a blog and articles are being written all the time! Still no hits! Why? Maybe nobody knows about it…
There are a million ways to actually market your amazing SEO’ed site that have nothing to do with the actual site’s development or design. Google likes inbound links. You’ll need to make and encourage and beg for as many of those you can. However, don’t be sneaky. Google can only be fooled for so long before it gets angry and throws you to the bottom of the world. So avoid pointless-seeming affiliate schemes, advertising pyramids and all that junk.
Find the people online who like your product. If you sell sports goods, find sports forums. Join as a forum person, not as a spammer. Converse, make friends, give and ask for advice. Lots of forums let you link in your signature. You can shamelessly promote yourself everywhere without being spammy this way. Say somebody goes on the forum and says, “My feet hurt when I run” and you know all about pronating and supanating and all that jazz, so you say “You should buy McDinkin’s corrective running shoes. Our customers go nuts for them. You can find them in your local sports shops or online. Don’t buy the blue ones, they smell! I know, I’m a sports shop owner…”
And quietly sitting there in your post signature is a link to your shop. Suddenly you look like an expert, your advice is relevant and you’re more likely to be bought from than if you just say “buy our corrective running shoes! £99 a pair – Free delivery!!!”
You can see the difference. The first way is relevant, the second is spammy. So people like your post, it becomes popular, people link to it, and it slides a little bit up Google for searches such as “running shoes” and “sports equipment”.
You could then take the opportunity to write a blog post for your site, giving advice on all sorts of running shoes stuff you’re knowledgeable in. You can add to your forum “I wrote up an explanation in a bit more details, take a look… [link]”
Marketing itself is a whole other subject than SEO. SEO is a set of techniques that help search engines assess your relevance to the world. You will still need to use all the other marketing techniques to hand, such as ad campaigns, posters, and sponsorship. Not every website even needs to be “top of Google”. Treating your customers well and expanding through word-of-mouth is still viable and incredibly effective, even in a world of viral video camaigns and instant e-commerce. If your business is based around a person-to-person model, such as design or therapy, you’ll find you get recommended if you give a bit extra.
It’s a good idea to focus on your web statistics, available from Google Analytics. This will tell you what’s popular on your site, and what people are searching for. Say you’re a digital artist. You take a few photos of textures like wood and stone, and put them up on your site. If your analytics say people are finding you by searching for “stone textures” then you might want to add some more, or a downloadable Zip pack – this way, the relevance of your site increases to the world.
Make your site relevant and accessible to humans, with well written content and effective graphic work. Design it so it talks to Google well, with meta-tags, sitemap XML and proper semantic markup. Grow it with a blog or CMS, giving good advice and letting your fans know about new products and competitions. That’s it really. That’s all SEO is. Anything else is marketing:-
To market your site, spread the word around the web (and of course, the real world!), being relevant and friendly, not in-your-face and spammy. Run an ad campaign. Watch how people find your site. Adapt accordingly, with articles and features. Facebook and Twitter help, as well as the industry-specific social networks such as Deviantart, Linkdin, and Flickr. Put your services on Craigslist and Gumtree. Radio plugs, press releases, fly-posting, leaflets on car winscreens, cold-calling, door-to-door… You know what to do!
And, most importantly, have a great product at the other end…